Alchemy Talk Introduces Medieval-Early Modern Initiative

Aaron Kitch

Aaron Kitch

English Department Chair Aaron Kitch presented “Queer Matter: Science and Sexuality in the Renaissance” in Kresge Auditorium on Nov. 5, the first offering of the faculty lecture series Science Before Science under the auspices of the College’s new Medieval and Early Modern Studies colloquium, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The lecture series is about “trying to understand what constitutes science before the scientific revolution,” Kitch said. Focusing on the contents of the Ripley Scroll, a document named after 15th-century English alchemist George Ripley, Kitch spoke of alchemy as an early science that helped define the practice of approaching nature as an object of study. Beyond exploring alchemy’s place in science history, he also highlighted its overlooked ties to the history of sexuality. Alchemists considered matter to contain the seeds of other types of matter, he said, a phenomenon they likened to sexual reproduction. Some considered matter to have desire for itself – a homosexual identity of sorts.

Kitch’s lecture also served to announce an upcoming course cluster offered by Medieval and Early Modern Studies on the same “science before science” theme, running from spring 2014 through spring 2015. Each semester, four or more courses involving science in pre-modern times will be linked through shared readings, lectures, dinners, films, symposia, and other events.

The cluster is intended “to create continuity and draw connections between the courses,” Kitch said – courses that span a wide range of disciplines, including history, art history, English, classics, Romance languages, and religion. While students may take courses simultaneously or over the course of the three semesters, “it’s an opportunity to bring focus into their schedules.” Associate Professor of History Dallas Denery is directing the course cluster this spring, with Kitch taking over to direct it next year.

Both the lecture series and course cluster were made possible by a generous Mellon Foundation grant that provided funding for three cross-disciplinary initiatives in the humanities at Bowdoin. Medieval and early modern studies, the Civil War era, and Mediterranean studies were chosen as themes through a competitive review of proposals from faculty.

While faculty from across Bowdoin’s curriculum with expertise in pre-modern Europe have been meeting regularly since 2002 to share ideas and workshop papers, the group was able to vastly expand its scope upon receiving funding from the three-year grant. “Now we’re meeting to plan events and invite people to campus, and there’s the course element that we weren’t doing before,” Kitch said. “It has definitely helped bring more faculty together in new ways, as we develop this offering for our students.”

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